Once a regular reviewer for both Shots magazine and Page Horrific, Matt also wrote a monthly column for the weekly Hellnotes newsletter under the editorship of Judi Rohrig. He now runs an irregular blogspot at www.readerdad.co.uk
Jodi and Todd have been together for over 20 years. Todd, a self-made man, is prone to dalliance while Jodi, a part-time psychologist, has always been happy to turn a blind eye in order to maintain the status quo. This time, things are different. This time the young woman with whom Todd has been sleeping is pregnant and the consequences of this affair will be far-ranging and, ultimately, devastating to Jodi and Todd’s relationship. While Todd feels trapped, Jodi slowly comes to the realisation that, of everyone involved, she – the common-law wife – is the only person with anything to lose.
Told in alternate chapters from the point of view of Jodi and Todd, The Silent Wife is a perfect example of the slow build leading to a worthwhile and, frankly, beautifully-planned climax. As the novel opens we meet a couple who have obviously lived together for a long time. They’re not a particularly touchy-feely couple, and the relationship seems more companionable than loving. This is helped by Harrison’s approach to telling the story: the language is restrained, somehow formal, reflecting the life of privilege that these two people have been fortunate enough to live until now.
She likes things orderly and predictable and feels secure when her time is mapped out in advance. It’s a pleasure to flip through her daybook and see what she has to look forward to: spa visits, hair appointments, medical checkups, Pilates sessions…Evenings, when she isn’t cooking for Todd, she has dinner with friends. And then there are the two extended vacations – one in summer and one in winter – that she and Todd always enjoy together.
As the story progresses, and the crevasse between them grows, we begin to see the inner workings of the minds of Jodi and Todd. The latter is something of a stereotype: a wealthy man who likes to play away from home while believing that his wife will never suspect and, if she does, will be easily placated with something shiny and expensive. Jodi, on the other hand, is a much more complex character and, unsurprisingly, a much more unstable one. There are secrets buried in Jodi’s past, secrets that she has hidden from herself as well as those around her. As a result, she is a woman who lives in denial, who is willing to accept her husband for what he is simply because it is easier than the inevitable confrontation. This side of her character becomes more and more apparent as events progress until Jodi’s safe little world effectively shatters around her.
As the relationship grows more acrimonious, it becomes clear that both parties are playing games that don’t always have the result they might have wished for. Jodi is getting one message from Todd when she speaks to him directly, but a completely different message from Todd’s solicitor. The fact that they have never married may have dire consequences for Jodi’s future, consequences that never occurred to her when she made the decision years previously, but which Todd’s legal team are more than happy to exploit. Todd, meanwhile, breaks the stereotype mould and reveals himself as a man conflicted. On the one hand, here is this woman with whom he has spent the last twenty years of his life and with whom he believes himself still to be in love. On the other, a much younger woman who is bearing his child and who is turning out to be not quite as perfect as she seemed when he didn’t have to live with her. His heart is pulling him in one direction while his need for an heir is pulling in another.
The novel moves slowly towards an inevitable climax, the pressure on Jodi building until she has no other choice. How Harrison handles this is terrific. Narrated in the same stilted and slow voice, the long-awaited scenes of violence are all the more chilling. There’s a perfectly-executed note of ambiguity introduced here, an extra kick for the reader, leaving us to make up our own minds as to what has happened, and why. It’s a masterfully-written sequence that relies on seeds planted almost from page one.
The Silent Wife isn’t really my usual fare. It’s a crime novel that takes forever to get to the actual crime, and what leads up to it sounds like it should be behind a jacket covered in pink hearts and gold rings. Far from it. This is the story of the slow disintegration of a long-standing relationship, the inter-character dynamics that drive it down the path it follows and the shocking consequences that can result from the simplest – or stupidest – of mistakes. Jodi and Todd are cut from the same cloth as the Lohmans from Herman Koch’s The Dinner or the Longstreets from Roman Polanski’s Carnage, and find themselves in a situation that is as realistic yet startlingly unbelievable as those other two fine works. Harrison’s skill is in keeping her characters in check, keeping events grounded, and presenting a coherent and believable story that still has the power to surprise and shock the reader.
A.S.A. Harrison sadly died shortly before the book’s UK publication. But what a legacy she has left behind in this single, wonderful novel that is sure to become a classic of the crime genre in years to come. There’s something distinctly pulp-noirish about the novel, something that would make it sit comfortably on a shelf beside Jim Thompson or Raymond Chandler. Beautifully-written and surprisingly engaging, The Silent Wife is a slow-burner that deserves the time it takes to get going. For me, it’s a surprise hit, and a book that I’ll be recommending for a long time to come. It’s just a shame we’re unlikely to see anything else like it.
This review first appeared at www.readerdad.co.uk – reprinted with acknowledgement to Matt Craig.